Meanwhile, the Pentagon said Monday that an American soldier died last week of wounds received two weeks ago while hunting for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan,.
Proposals under discussion could ultimately lead Special Operations units to get more deeply involved in long-term covert operations in countries where the United States is not at war and, in some cases, where the local government is not informed of their presence, the newspaper said, citing Pentagon and intelligence officials.
Any expansion of the military's involvement in clandestine activities could be justified, Pentagon officials believe, by defining it as "preparation of the battlefield."
The United States blames Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization for the hijacked airliner attacks on New York and Washington that killed around 3,000 people.
But some officials outside the Pentagon have expressed concerns that the proposals could lead the military into covert operations traditionally conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency under tightly controlled legal conditions.
Those CIA operations are set out by President Bush in secret "findings," which are then closely monitored by Congress.
The discussion whether to give Special Operations forces missions to capture or kill individual al Qaeda leaders may also conflict with the executive order prohibiting assassinations, the paper said.
Under past administrations, combat activities conducted by Special Operations forces and missions handled by the CIA were distinct. But the line has blurred as current campaigns require greater cooperation among United States law enforcement, intelligence and military officials.
And it may not take a legal ruling to send Special Operations forces after al Qaeda leaders.
"We're at war with al Qaeda," a senior adviser to Rumsfeld told The Times. "If we find an enemy combatant, then we should be able to use military forces to take military action against them."
No formal plans have yet been written, and the discussions remain far from any form that might be presented to President Bush for his approval, according to the Times.
Yet, Rumsfeld is said by aides to be frustrated that military operations in and around Afghanistan have reached a plateau without the elimination of al Qaeda.
The Pentagon has ordered the Special Operations Command to come up with new ideas on how elite counter-terrorism units could be sent to "disrupt and destroy enemy assets," the paper said, citing three sources.
CIA director George Tenet is described as "not opposing" the proposals.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher James Speer, 28, of Albuquerque, N.M., was among five U.S. soldiers injured in an ambush on July 27 in the east of Afghanistan. He died Wednesday, a Department of Defense statement said.
About 50 U.S. soldiers and allied Afghan militia were trying to confirm intelligence about an enemy operative in the area when they came under small-arms fire, commanders said at the time. Special Forces and conventional troops were flown to the fight after the ambush, putting a total of about 100 troops on the ground.
Two Afghan militiamen also had been killed in the 4½-hour gun battle in eastern Afghanistan during a search for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters believed holed up in the lawless region.
Speer had been evacuated to Germany for medical care. The other four soldiers' injuries were not life threatening and they were treated at the U.S. base at Bagram, Afghanistan.
At least three of those who opened fire on the U.S. and Afghan troops from a mud-brick compound also were killed, officials say.
In another development, U.S. special forces captured three suspected al Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan over the weekend, a U.S. military spokesman said Monday.
Authorities in eastern Afghanistan also arrested one Yemeni man who admitted being an al Qaeda member and found three Russian anti-tank missiles hidden in Jalalabad, a senior police officer said Monday.
The Khost area, about 90 miles southeast of Kabul in Paktia province, is regarded as one of the most insecure parts of the country and forces of the U.S.-led coalition have repeatedly conducted operations there to flush out holdouts of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The soldiers also found explosive and ammunition caches that included 200 feet of detonation cord, 10 high explosive charges, 100 firing devices, five hand grenades and mortar rounds.
Other American troops found 50 rocket-propelled grenades during a search operations near Malaksay, in southeastern Paktika province.